Meatpacking COVID Protections Advance; Federal Overreach Resolution Heard

May 6, 2021, 5:09 p.m. ·

Sen. Tony Vargas speaks Thursday (NET screenshot)

Listen To This Story

A proposal aimed at protecting meatpacking workers from COVID-19 was pared back, then advanced in the Nebraska Legislature today/Thursday. And a public hearing was held on a resolution opposing federal government overreach.

The proposal by Sen. Tony Vargas would require meatpacking plants to do things like provide workers face masks, temperature checks, paid testing and sick leave if they have COVID. Plants can be fined up to $5,000 for a first violation, and $50,000 for subsequent violations. In an amendment he said was designed to address opponents’ concerns, Vargas dropped a requirement that would have enforced a six-foot distance between workers. He said while progress is being made against the pandemic, action is needed to safeguard the future:

“While we are incredibly grateful for the vaccine, we are not out of the woods yet. We have the opportunity to do something. And that’s what we’re doing here today with LB241. First, these changes are not permanent. I’m only asking for one year of temporary protections or safeguards. And to be honest, it is the absolute least we can do to help these workers and their families,” Vargas said.

Sen. Julie Slama opposed the proposal.

“We do have some great news with COVID in our state. I’ve checked in with Lincoln Premium Poultry and Smithfield. Both of those companies have zero current cases among their thousands of workers right now. That’s outstanding. Every single adult in Nebraska has access to the vaccine. The overwhelming majority of our meatpacking plant workers have received at least one dose of the vaccine and the majority have received both doses. They’ve been fully vaccinated,” Slama said.

But Sen. Ray Aguilar, whose district includes the JBS Swift plant in Grand Island, said workers there are still afraid.

“I'm still asked questions like, ‘Why are we still doing this? It's, it's over.’ I assure you it's not over. And the fear that these people are carrying daily, when they go to work, is real,” Aguilar said.

Vargas said so far, there’ve been almost 7,400 COVID cases among meatpacking workers, more than 250 hospitalizations, and at least 28 deaths. And he said the vast majority of meatpacking workers are nonwhite – Latinos or refugees from other countries.

Sen. Carol Blood said that’s been the reason for inaction on the federal level, creating the need for state action.

“We had an opportunity to help these workers at the federal level a long time ago. And everybody looked the other way and with all due respect, why do you think that happened? If there were middle class white people working in those factories, I think it would have been resolved a lot sooner, and that's just the truth of the matter,” Blood said.

Sen. Mike Groene suggested the proposal was a feel-good measure that wouldn’t add to safeguards already in place.

“This bill is empathy in legislation. We feel for somebody’s loss. It's not necessary, we have a system in place, OSHA, I will repeat it, the local health district, the employer themselves who care for their workers, the union who represents them,” Groene said.

And Sen. Ben Hansen, a chiropractor, worried how many other businesses could be subject to similar regulation.

“Meatpacking plants today. Who’s tomorrow? Kawasaki plants? Manufacturing plants? Fitness facilities? Businesses like mine -- small businesses? Are we going to make them put dividers up?” Hansen asked.

Vargas said that many meatpacking plants have already implemented the measures that his bill would require, so the proposal would affect only those who had not done so. The Legislature gave first-round approval to the measure on a vote of 27-16. If the measure ultimately passes and is vetoed, it would take 30 votes to override that veto.

Also Thursday, the Legislature’s Executive Board held a public hearing on a resolution expressing alarm about what it characterized as attacks by the federal government on constitutional rights. The resolution, introduced by Groene, specifically mentions the right to keep and bear arms and the free exercise of religion. It also protests against federal proposals on elections and land conservation.

Jennifer Hicks was among those testifying in support of the resolution. She criticized President Joe Biden for saying Second Amendment rights are not absolute.

“His assinine comparison to the First Amendment limitations that would prevent someone from yelling ‘Fire!” in a crowded movie theater demonstrates that he does not have capacity to distinguish law-abiding behavior from malicious intent. Further evidence of his inability to make that distinction is found in his willingness to turn a blind eye to the violence and destruction that is permeating cities across America, choosing instead to turn a watchful eye toward law-abiding gun owners who are under threat of being falsely labeled as domestic terrorists by our federal government simply for the political views that we hold,” Hicks said.

Mar Lee of the LGBTQ support organization Out Nebraska was among those opposing the resolution. Lee criticized language asserting the federal government wants to punish “traditional religious beliefs about the sanctity of life and sexual mores.”

“Nebraska, like the rest of the United States, is a pluralistic state and not a theocracy. There’s not one religious tradition but many, each with its own set of values. Whose traditional values do you purport to uphold, senators? Those values most often cited as ‘traditional’ have caused irreparable harm to the LGBTQ-plus community in the form of family rejection of LGBTQ youth, conversion therapy, discrimination and hate crimes,” Lee said.

The Executive Board took no immediate action on the resolution.